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Peyton Place

by Glenn Erickson Mar 28, 2017

DVD SAVANT

The book was raw & dirty, and did you read what that girl did with that guy on page 167? Racking up a stack of Oscar nominations, Peyton Place became one of the big hits of its year, launched the careers of several young actors, and proved that Hollywood could pasteurize most any so-called un-filmable book. Lana Turner is the nominal star but the leading actress is Diane Varsi, in her film debut.

Peyton Place
Blu-ray
Twilight Time
1957 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 157 min. / Street Date March 14, 2017 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store 29.95
Starring: Lana Turner, Hope Lange, Arthur Kennedy, Lloyd Nolan, Lee Philips, Terry Moore, Russ Tamblyn, Betty Field, David Nelson, Leon Ames, Mildred Dunnock.
Cinematography William Mellor
Art Direction Jack Martin Smith, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor David Bretherton
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by John Michael Hayes from the book by Grace Metalious
Produced by Jerry Wald
Directed by
Mark Robson

 

What’s this, another vintage shocker that one probably needs to be over forty to remember at all? This one is truly meaningful — as commemorated in The Fifties, the impressive book by the much-missed David Halberstam. The TV miniseries that followed spent almost an entire episode studying the ‘Peyton Place’ scandal, as representative of a new force transforming America.

Producer Jerry Wald performed a slick magic act with Peyton Place, a ‘book that could not be filmed’ when that statement meant something. Wald created a hit picture that found popular acclaim, even if the critics reviled it. It earned a pile of nominations, including Best Picture.

 

Today Peyton Place plays like a soap opera given a high gloss. It’s certainly entertaining, and it’s a quality movie by industry standards, yet it’s the exact opposite of everything Grace Metalious’ scorching novel was meant to be. It’s typical for a so-called dangerous book to be stripped of everything but its hot name on the way to the screen. It’ll be heralded as a courageous effort even if it’s just trying to make a buck from a scandalous phenomenon. In this case I think the public didn’t mind the whitewash. After all, the movie retained some of the original’s racy content, and those that cared could imagine where the hot stuff fit in. It’s true — as a kid I once found a copy of the book. Just as is said, the paperback had seven or eight ‘special’ pages flagged and the salacious content marked in ink.

New school principal Michael Rossi (Lee Phillips) comes to Peyton Place, which might be a nicer small town if not for all the gossip, shameful sex and scandal that seem to roost on every doorstep. Bitter Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner) hides the secret of her out-of-wedlock daughter Allison (Diane Varsi), a sweet girl who doesn’t understand her mother’s repressive measures and seeming hatred of men. Allison’s girlfriend Selena Cross (Hope Lange) is a poor girl trying to escape the incestuous advances of her degenerate stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). The two girls are wooed by the shy mama’s boy Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn) and local rich boy, Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe), although Rodney also has eyes for the town’s fast girl Betty Anderson (Terry Moore). It’s a hotbed of intrigue and tragedy in the making. Can the wiser old folks help the new generation avoid the pitfalls of their parents? Can the new generation tell their elders to go to blazes, so they can do what they want?

 

Some of the ‘scandalous’ book is indeed here, incestuous rape, mainly. But most of the salacious content of Grace
Metalious’ book is conspicuously absent or only given the nod of allusion, as if book-readers were meant to fill in the blanks for themselves. Constance Mackenzie staggers Allison with the information that she’s illegitimate. Young Norman Page appears to be warped by the unhealthy influence of his own mother. The white trash Cross family lives in a ragged shack literally on the wrong side of the tracks. The scrubbed and poised Selena Cross seems so alien to her sordid family environment, she comes off like Marilyn Munster. The young folks are sexually curious, the parents are fanatically suspicious and the old folks are meddling gossipers.

Grace Metalious’ bitter novel has a point: underneath the sweet complacency of every little town is a stench of sin and repression that 1950s America is loath to acknowledge. The alienation she uncovers is sexual, just as other ‘subversive’ touchstones of that decade are politically based, for instance The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Rip the lid from her original Peyton Place and you’ll find ugliness and hatred stamping out the few sparks of joy. Metalious was a housewife stuck in a small New Hampshire town and hating every minute of it. She made herself into a local pariah by basing her characters on her real neighbors and acquaintances, recognizably so. The story hit home. Metalious tapped into a more mainstream vein than did other ‘banned’ authors, such as Henry Miller.

Peyton Place the movie soaks the book in a glaze of Hollywood glamour. In CinemaScope and color, the township is far too beautiful to be evil. The only real trouble is isolated, and really the fault of perverted or misguided elders. The problems would be easily rooted out if it weren’t for old-fashioned suspicion and ignorant gossip. There’s no ugliness in human nature, only tragic misunderstandings. In other words, The Kids are Alright… just a little perplexed.

 

Obviously the movie couldn’t depict the marked, dog-eared pages in everyone’s pocketbook copies, the scenes with explicit descriptions of people lusting, having sex, and not being ashamed about it. Instance by instance, the dangerous material is sidestepped or neutered. We can’t be sure that any teen hanky-panky is taking place. Two kids don’t actually skinny dip; the girl just wears a tan-colored bathing suit. The town’s bad girl becomes a misunderstood good girl. An abortion is downgraded to a miscarriage, yet a gabby nurse is just as scandalized. The implied incest theme with Norman Page is reduced to a rumor of a rumor. For every suspicion of wrongdoing we’re offered a tempering sermon or homily about human understanding… Rossi even touts the need for decent sex education.

The book’s Peyton Place is essentially a nest of vipers, a cross-section of petty, All-American evils comparable to the French hamlet in H.G. Clouzot’s Le corbeau. In the film, we’re mostly left with a torpid soap opera. On duty as sage moral spokesmen, the liberal school principal and the wise old doctor Swain (Lloyd Nolan) do their best to help the kids traumatized by the rest of the town. The implication is not that the place needs to be razed and sown with salt, but that a little love and understanding will heal all wounds.

Director Mark Robson was Val Lewton’s least interesting disciple. His work here plasters the film with a flat pictorial neutrality. Some scenes superficially resemble Picnic but it never approaches that picture’s feeling of painful romantic hopelessness. Even with its handsome Franz Waxman score, the film meanders pleasantly through much of its two hours and thirty-six minutes.

 

For Peyton Place Lana Turner accepted her first ‘mother’ part, although the character of Constance MacKenzie is meant to be only in her thirties. She was rewarded with a best actress nomination. I guess no stars wanted to play her pragmatic educator boyfriend, because Lee Philips is pretty thick in the role. He was even worse as an alcoholic jet pilot in the next year’s The Hunters, and eventually found himself in a long and successful career as a television director.

Arthur Kennedy’s showoff turn as a degenerate shanty dad also got a nomination, and so did Russ Tamblyn’s neurotic kid Norman. He straightens out in the military, the Conservative’s cure for all teen ills. Tamblyn and Kennedy’s vote was split, so say the Oscar experts, guaranteeing that neither would win. Ditto for the bright young actresses Hope Lange and Diane Varsi. Lange already had movie experience and would continue with a varied career. The sensitive newcomer Varsi was quite adventurous. She took only a couple more film roles (Compulsion) before walking out on her Fox contract. She then came back several years later to appear almost exclusively in AIP exploitation pictures. These fresh young actresses are what’s really worthwhile about seeing Peyton Place. Nobody else stands out, even when each is given an emotional highlight. As Selena’s mother, Betty Field has little to do but look helpless and unhappy.

 

We’re told that Peyton Place was only doing so-so box office when Lana Turner and her daughter became caught up in the highly publicized Johnny Stompanato murder investigation. The tabloid sensation boosted ticket sales and sent Turner’s popularity soaring.

The show did make some previously taboo subject matter seem more acceptable. Exploitative teen delinquency movies suddenly delighted in showing girls good and bad alike suffering through unwanted pregnancies, scrapes with the law, etc. No end of teenage angst and dime store Freud was trotted out to make the sordid subject acceptable. Big-budget Hollywood soon followed up on Peyton Place’s sexy soap approach to modern teen life, before the invention of the Generation Gap. The big winner was the shrewd writer-director Delmer Daves, who practically absorbed the tawdry subgenre with one 1960 super hit A Summer Place (‘place’, get it?). It combined repressive parents, vacant teen Troy Donohue and a preggers Sandra Dee in a stew of confused morals, played out in glamorous, upscale settings. Max Steiner’s ‘let’s pet’ make-out anthem Theme From A Summer Place and the ‘”innocent’ chemistry between the youngsters probably accounted for a baby boom early the following year. Daves tried to repeat the formula in two more Troy Donohue losers (Parrish, Susan Slade) and not long thereafter the un-filmable Peyton Place became a humdrum television serial.


 

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Peyton Place shows us why this 1957 hit impressed audiences, as it looks great. The new disc greatly improves on the old 2004 DVD in color, grain and sharpness; the images may not be artistic but they’re definitely pretty. A standout is Franz Waxman’s sensitive score, which provides the warmth and human feeling that the original book definitely did without.

Twilight Time retains the old Fox ‘studio classics’ extras, notably an informative AMC Backstory program showing the arc of the Peyton phenom from scandalous book to oversold TV staple. It’s interesting to hear how golden-boy producer Jerry Wald cagily put the movie together with a mix of old timers and new talent. A big focus is on Turner, the ‘torrid’ star of the previous decade, and her scandalous court case. We see courtroom news film of Ms Turner giving a better performance than she ever gave in a movie. The docu has the right spirit, even if it doesn’t quite peg Peyton Place for what it is, a cultural freak show.

The older disc extras include a couple of newsreel items and a full-length commentary shared by Russ Tamblyn and Terry Moore. Russ is as honest as ever about his career and open about the business and this particular film. When he runs out of film-specific memories he begins to wander, telling tales about loaning his Malibu house to Elvis Presley for parties, etc. Terry Moore has almost nothing of value to contribute. She merely bounces off images on the screen, praising her fellow actors and offering various lame observations, such as how disgustingly literal all the risqué content would be in a modern remake. She makes sure we know that she starred in the very first two Cinemascope films, Beneath the Twelve-Mile Reef and King of the Khyber Rifles, forgetting that the first was The Robe. About twenty minutes after Tamblyn stopped contributing, I gave up on the commentary, so if Ms. Moore finished with the wisdom of the ages, I missed it.

Tamblyn is always refreshing, but an additional, new commentary from author-producer Willard Carroll pushes the disc into extra-special territory. A lot of commentators with access to the IMDB get called film experts, but Mr. Carroll tells us ten interesting things I didn’t know about this movie in the first ten minutes. A resident of Maine, he nails all the locations and tells us how they’ve changed. Lana Turner never went on location, so she’s seen either in interiors, or with fuzzy rear projection. The pretty still photos of farmland and churches we see under the titles, are all stock material from the location shoot for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, filmed two years before. Carroll’s scene specific commentary tells us exactly what has been changed from the book: as we might have guessed, in the book Lucas Cross is Selena’s actual father. Grace Metalious took the story from an actual case of someone she knew, who killed her abusive father. Carroll delivers his entertaining commentary in fine style — I’m envious.

Willard Carroll also contributes a narration to a featurette filmed on the Peyton Place locations.

Twilight Time is maintaining its all-color insert pamphlets — Julie Kirgo’s insert essay neatly fits the show into its slot in 1950s cultural history. She also brings up the participation of actors I didn’t cover: David Nelson, Leon Ames, Mildred Dunnock and Betty Field, who played a key role in a similar tale of sordid sex troubles in a small town, 1942’s Kings Row. Ms. Kirgo also notes that author Grace Metalious became rich, but apparently was unable to exorcise her bitterness with the world and died young. The once-banned book is now featured in college studies.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Peyton Place Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary with Willard Carroll, commentary with Terry Moore and Russ Tamblyn; featurette On Location in Peyton Place with Willard Carroll commentary; AMC Backstory: Peyton Place; Fox Movietone Newsreels; trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: March 25, 2017
(5374peyt)

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Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for DVD Savant.